Why Sherlock Holmes?
Since his first appearance in 1887 in the, Sherlock Holmes has become an industry — the Guinness Book of World Records notches him as the most-played film character in history, with some 200 actors playing the role — and a metaphor for clear thinking and deductive reasoning. As teachers of English we can take a leaf out of Holmes’s book and use his methodology to become better teachers.
Observation of details.
When Holmes first met Dr. Watson, his soon to be partner in solving crimes, the detective made a certain and offhand claim: “You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive.”
Watson’s reply: “How on Earth did you know that?”
Holmes, naturally, deduced it:
“I knew you came from Afghanistan…
The train of reasoning ran, ‘Here is a gentleman of a medical type, but with the air of a military man. Clearly an army doctor, then. He has just come from the tropics, for his face is dark, and this is not the natural tint of his skin, for his wrists are fair. He has undergone hardship and sickness, as his haggard face says clearly. His left arm has been injured. He holds it in a stiff and unnatural manner. Where in the tropics could an English army doctor have seen much hardship and got his arm wounded? Clearly in Afghanistan.'”
This is deep level observation. Holmes sees his new acquaintance’s symptoms of tropics, sickness, and injury, and is able to see how they fit together — deducing his personal history from his appearance. We can use his skills to deduce the emotional and social well-being of our students. We can learn the same by learning to paying attention. What state are the students in when they walk in to the room? Are they excited? Upset? Is a normally organized student disorganized? What effect might this have on the learning atmosphere in the classroom?
Pay attention to the basics.
When Holmes famously quips that the solution of a case is “elementary,” he’s not simply dismissing the detective work as easy. Rather, he’s talking about elements, the essentials of a situation.
Holmes says: “Before turning to those moral and mental aspects of the matter which present the greatest difficulties, let the enquirer begin by mastering more elementary problems.”
A detective and a teacher should begin with the facts of a case before adding interpretation. In a teacher’s case that means data. At the beginning of the year, if your school does not have a testing regime in place, then you must ensure that you baseline students. Not only will you produce evidence about where the students currently are, ensure that you mark using criteria so that you can use it as a diagnostic tool. They may have earned to use full stops and capital letters last year, but as to whether they are using them consistently – a test will show that. It also provides evidence for progress – yours and theirs. The notorious summer of forgetfulness is still upon us, so make sure to find out what you need to teach before you either make the lesson content to easy or too difficult.
“Whatever the specific issue, you must define and formulate it in your mind as specifically as possible — and then you must fill it in with past experience and present observation,” Konnikova writes. “As Holmes admonishes Lestrate and Gregson when the two detectives fail to note a similarity between the murder being investigated and an earlier case, ‘There is nothing new under the sun. It has all been done before.'”
Use all of your senses.
In the novel “Hound of the Baskervilles,” Holmes assembles clues not just by reading everything he can find, but involving all his senses.
As he tells Watson: “It may possibly recur to your memory that when I examined the paper upon which the printed words were fastened I made a close inspection for the water-mark. In doing so I held it within a few inches of my eyes, and was conscious of a faint smell of the scent known as white jessamine. There are seventy-five perfumes, which it is very necessary that a criminal expert should be able to distinguish from each other, and cases have more than once within my own experience depended on their prompt recognition. The scent suggested the presence of a lady, and already my thoughts began to turn toward the Stapletons. Thus I had made certain of the hound, and had guessed at the criminal before we ever went to the west country.”
We as teachers and learners shouldn’t neglect our senses. When writing description, it is often the sense of smell which is the most difficult to write about, yet smells and perfumes can evoke incredibly strong memories. Provide your students with a multi-sensory experience when writing. Try to recreate the smells of literature as well as the visuals of literature. Or try creating a nurturing classroom with the use of plug-ins. Lavender for after PE to calm everyone down, or cotton smells (Yankee Candles apparently do an excellent one) to make the classroom nurturing.
Be ‘actively passive’ when you’re talking to someone.
When Holmes is listening to — or perceiving — somebody, he’s not fussing with his register or half reading emails. Holmes focuses his whole attention on observing the subject. He listens, ‘with closed eyes and fingertips together.’ … He will not be distracted by any other task. Listening, we have learned, isn’t just a matter of hearing the words people say. Instead, we need to attend the whole of a person’s expression to get all the nonverbal information that’s being communicated — but so easy to ignore. What are the students telling us, not just with their words, but with their actions and body position? Can we tell if they have understood what the lesson is about through listening fully?
Give yourself distance.
When Holmes is dealing with a particularly thorny case, he occupies himself with another activity, like playing the violin or smoking a pipe.
The thorniest of cases are “three pipe problems.”
From “The Red-Headed League”: “‘To smoke,’ (Holmes) answered. ‘It is quite a three pipe problem, and I beg that you won’t speak to me for fifty minutes.’ He curled himself up in his chair, with his thin knees drawn up to his hawk-like nose, and there he sat with his eyes closed and his black clay pipe thrusting out like the bill of some strange bird. I had come to the conclusion that he had dropped asleep, and indeed was nodding myself, when he suddenly sprang out of his chair with the gesture of a man who has made up his mind and put his pipe down upon the mantelpiece.”
Not that I am advocating smoking, but taking some time out. It is often difficult to deal with difficult situations in the heat of the moment. Use the pipe smoking as a metaphor for being able to constructively distract himself from his thinking. In the same way that playing the violin helps the detective to sort through his thoughts, packing and smoking his pipe does his solution-finding imagination a favor by doing something with his body.
For similar reasons we get ideas on walks. Try lesson planning while having a walk after school, rather than pushing on at school. Not only is there a health benefit, but often great ideas pop up when you least expect it.
Say it aloud.
Holmes talks to Watson about everything.
The telling helps, Holmes says. “Nothing clears up a case so much as stating it to another person.” Saying something out loud forces you to pause and reflect. It forces you to think about each issue logically and allows you to slow down your thinking, thus helping you to crack the case.
Got a behaviour issue with a particular student? Sharing the load not only enables colleagues to help and support, but also enables you to think through the problems without the emotion obscuring the reasons why the student may be acting like that.
Adapt to the situation.
Holmes is not a one-size-fits-all sort of sleuth. He tailors his approach to fit the case in question.
When Holmes meets a would-be source of information, he profiles him or her, looking for any advantage that might be communicated by their appearance.
He tells Watson how he nabbed details from a gambling type from intentionally losing a bet to him: “When you see a man with whiskers of that cut and the ‘Pink ‘un’ (a British football newspaper) protruding out of his pocket, you can always draw him by a bet … I daresay that if I had put £100 down in front of him, that man would not have given me such complete information as was drawn from him by the idea that he was doing me on a wager.”
Can we deliberately draw out certain behaviours to see what provokes them or helps them? As teachers can we use different methods of teaching deliberately to see what works with each specific class or specific students. As we all know, a lesson which was fabulous last year can flop this year for a myriad of reasons. Don’t just use last year’s planning, but adapt it to the current situation or time of day.
This may seem impossible in a classroom and in teaching, but it is essential. If you’re out there detecting all the time, you need to give yourself breaks. It’s not just about getting some rest; the key is to allow your mind to filter the important observations from the inconsequential ones. Thus the need for solitude.
The importance of the aloneness wasn’t lost on Watson, who writes of his friend: “I knew that seclusion and solitude were very necessary for my friend in those hours of intense mental concentration during which he weighed every particle of evidence, constructed alternative theories, balanced one against the other, and made up his mind as to which points were essential and which immaterial.”
When children are writing or thinking they need quiet too. Use the start of term to set up sections of the lesson which are for quiet working, or quiet reflection.
We as teachers need quiet to think through past actions, evaluating what has worked that day and what hasn’t and plan accordingly — boosting your creativity and your sanity.
Manage your energy.
Holmes knew how to prevent the mid-afternoon dip: not to lose his energy to digestion.
Here’s what he said when Watson begged him to eat: “The faculties become refined when you starve them … surely, my dear Watson, you must admit that what your digestion gains in the way of blood supply is so much lost to the brain. I am a brain, Watson. The rest of me is a mere appendix. Therefore, it is the brain I must consider.”
Holmes is aware that thinking draws from a finite supply of energy, that must, if you are to sleuth well, be managed precisely. How many of us skip a meal in the morning or at lunchtime because of time-pressures and then expect ourselves to be working at the same full throttle as normal? This is the same for students as well. Before a test, or before they are going to be thinking it would be prudent to give them a healthy snack to enable them to have the energy to be able to think.
SkillsMastery uses “The Red-Headed League” as the text for the Mastery Course.